Where the Back-Seat Driver Is Your Muse

When my friend Christian Williams, a screenwriter and contributor to West, has a script or a story to put together, he likes to move his office to that one place where his synapses are guaranteed to catch fire: Interstate 15.

He'll stick his tape recorder in the cup holder and wedge a clipboard between the armrest and dashboard. Then he'll hit the highway--and keep on cruising for the next 700 miles. "If you depart Los Angeles at 6 a.m. and drive virtually nonstop, in 12 hours you are in Salt Lake City," Williams says.

In between, he'll have talked, played back tape and scribbled his way to a fully conceived narrative. (Note to Williams' insurance company: Though he didn't mention it, I'm sure he's devised an ingenious way to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times.)

I reflected upon Williams' case of white-line fever --and my own affection for long drives--as I read this week's Rearview Mirror, an excerpt from the late John Gregory Dunne's essay "Eureka!" ("Free to Move About at Speed in the 'Instant City,'" page 10).

With its freeway architecture, Dunne suggests, L.A. "fosters the idea of freedom, or at least the illusion of it. Freedom of movement most of all, freedom that liberates the dweller in this city from community chauvinism and neighborhood narcissism, allowing him to absorb the most lavish endowments his environment has to offer--sun and space."

A lot has changed since 1978, when Dunne penned his piece. For more than a decade now, researchers point out, Los Angeles has suffered from the nation's worst road congestion. As a result, "freedom of movement" isn't the first phrase that residents are inclined to use when describing the 405 or 101.

But the basic idea--that hopping into your car and zipping off somewhere can be incredibly stimulating--still holds. The key these days is to get through the gridlock and the accordion-like traffic patterns and reach a stretch of blacktop where you become "suspended in the beautiful solitude of the open road," as Rebecca Solnit puts it in "A Field Guide to Getting Lost."

That's when the juices really flow. Williams, for instance, finds that he can practically see a movie unfold outside his windshield. "Roads are very cinematic," he says. The important thing is to stay focused and not be distracted by a cellphone or a CD player. "You shouldn't play music," Williams advises, for fear that it might artificially influence the plot you're generating. "You don't want to commission the soundtrack first."

I myself don't write when I drive. But I love to travel from L.A. to San Francisco, all alone up the 5, chewing over this and that. I can work out a lot of problems between the Tehachapis and the Altamont Pass.

Then the bottlenecks begin again, bringing my car--and some of my best thinking--to a grinding halt.

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